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To a family of pipeline workers, Keystone XL presents struggle of the century

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OMAHA, - There's a clan of semi-nomadic tradesmen quietly watching for a sign that, somewhere on the horizon, there might be a resolution to the Keystone XL dispute.

The Berringer brothers have travelled far, and often, to build pipelines like their dad did. Between the now-retired father and his two burly boys, their total combined experience adds up to about a century.

And in all that prodigious pipeline-laying history, they say, not once have they ever witnessed a struggle like the one over Keystone XL.

The Berringer boys happen to have a few bucks riding on the outcome.

They'd expect their union to land them some sort of construction work this summer, somewhere, but apparently nothing pays like pipelines.

"If it goes through I'm going to pay off a lot of my bills," said Jason Berringer, a 43-year-old from Yorktown, Iowa.

"If not, I'm gonna be carrying them bills a little longer."

American pipeline workers have become a human football in the political debate over the long-delayed Keystone XL plan, designed to increase Canadian pipeline capacity into the U.S. by about 25 per cent.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird referred to them last week in Washington when he pleaded for a decision before the construction season so that workers aren't left sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring.

The debate has been as much about them as carbon emissions or the energy supply. On the one hand, the Obama administration's opponents routinely beat up on it with the symbolic cudgel of tens of thousands of unfilled Keystone jobs. To the president's environmentalist base, however, the project would simply create tens — not tens of thousands — of permanent jobs after a brief construction phase.

The Berringer math, however, is a little more complex than the zero-sum formulas of political Washington.

To them, the calculus starts with a $45-a-day per diem. There's a six-day work week. Twenty overtime hours a week, at time-and-a-half. Because there's so much pressure to finish the project in one season, if possible, workers are brought in from all over the place and handed a heavy and lucrative schedule.

Given that the standard salary for a worker in their union is about $30 to $40 an hour, the extra cash can amount to about $1,500 per week — or, over an eight-month construction season, a grand total of about $48,000 in extra salary.

"Where you make money in construction is your overtime. It's not your 40-hour work weeks," explains the elder Berringer brother, 53-year-old Ron.

That cash trickles down into local economies along the pipeline route, he says.

Ron proudly describes seeing banners outside businesses, welcoming pipeline workers. He even recalls one restaurant owner in Yankton, Neb., being so thrilled with all the extra business that he brought free lunches to the crew one day.

"A town just gets flooded with all the pipeline people. They fill all the motels, all the restaurants, the mechanics' shops are filled, the barber shops," Ron said.

"A town just loves it when a pipeline goes through it because they fill everything. Maybe a business is going downhill, now it's not going downhill as much because we came in and gave them a lot of business."

The brothers are adamant about one thing: their pipelining passion isn't just about the pay.

There's also the pleasure of working outdoors.

And then there's the camaraderie of being on the road with the boys, who will often bunk together as a group in tents, campers or motels to save some of that per-diem cash.

It's just that pipeline jobs aren't always available, and the union will dispatch them to different projects.

Just last week, Ron was laid off at a power station at Fort Calhoun, Neb.

He's now on the lookout for his next job. Whatever it is, though, he'd hope to drop it the instant Keystone XL became available.

"We'd love to do pipelines all the time," Ron said. "It's just that there's not pipelines all the time — so we have to do something else."

A common complaint in Nebraska is that because so many of the workers are from outside the state, they're likely to take their money elsewhere so communities won't see much benefit from the bitumen coursing through their soil.

Laborers Local 1140 would be responsible for dispatching about half the 2,000 workers for Nebraska, and Iowa's Berringer clan would almost certainly be among them. Local 1140's business manager, Ron Kaminski, says about 70 per cent of the workforce would come from within the state.

But like so much else in the Keystone discussion, the issue of who lives where isn't always black and white.

Take the Berringers, for example.

Jason mostly lives in Iowa. He's also spent long stretches building pipelines in Illinois, Wyoming, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado. He's built some in Nebraska, too, and he rents a motel when he's there.

Ron, on the other hand, has a Nebraska apartment, in addition to his Iowa home. He's worked on about 20 pipelines in different states. He says it's not easy spending so much time away from his family.

So a share of workers' earnings get spent in local businesses. Also, TransCanada money would go to landowners who have been offered various amounts in exchange for a pipeline on their property.

Nearly one-third of the Nebraska landowners on the pipeline path have refused to settle, making it the only state with such stiff resistance. Holdout farmers worry that the figures being offered just don't compensate for the fear of a toxic leak.

It's the Berringers' job to help avoid that kind of thing.

The pipe comes in on rail cars, already commercially coated, Ron explains. Workers will then weld together 80-foot links. They'll sandblast the weld and heat it so the area is sticky, then add a layer of coating to that spot on the joint.

"(Then) just in case it's got any chips we inspect and patch them up," Ron said.

He's not aware of any spill, he says, on any of the pipes he's worked on.

The brothers admit they're getting a little frustrated with the whole Keystone XL discussion. The latest route, Ron says, hardly touches the ecologically sensitive area known as the Sandhills that pipeline opponents initially vowed to protect.

"It's barely even hitting the Sandhills now. That's what they wanted — for it to be re-routed. And now they don't even want that," he said. "To me it seems like it's not even really about the Sandhills. It's just, 'How long can we delay it? Let's just keep fighting it. We've already fought it for five years.'... It's like they're in a boxing ring or something, (thinking) 'Let's see how long we can go with this.'

"This has been the longest fight I've ever seen — and the longest fight anyone's ever seen."

One of their friends, they say, had to sell his car and now rides in an old clunker. He wouldn't be driving a jalopy, they say, if Keystone XL had been built.

As for the Berringers, they're not always sure which long-term jobs to accept and which ones to pass up on, because they keep holding out hope for Keystone. Jason says workers like him have lost out, financially, because of the wait.

They'll be waiting again, this spring. But they're setting a deadline date: May.

If there's no news by then, the Berringers will, for the rest of the 2014 construction season, roam elsewhere in the hunt for work.

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